Eating Flicka: A Good Idea?

If we separate the moral argument about eating companion animals and instead focus on the safety of horse meat, the end result remains the same: starting up the horse meat industry in the United States is not a good idea. To get a good understanding why, we need to take a closer look at what’s happening with the horse meat industry where the meat is currently allowed: The European Union (EU).

The EU has had procedures in place to ensure healthy horse meat for years, yet stories this year about horse meat incorporated into beef products, and horse meat testing positive for drug residue have surfaced repeatedly.

Horses in the EU are required to get a “passport” by six months of age, and all administered medications get recorded in the passport. Yet there have been a significant number of incidents where a passport for one horse is used with another, as well as incidents of fake passports.

Equine Essentials notes the issues in The Problem with Horse Passports:

The passport system has had plenty of criticism for not functioning properly, not being enforced and being subject to a lot of abuse. In February 2013 the BBC reported that 7000 unauthorised documents have been circulating in the UK since 2008. Not to mention the fake horse passports that are being made continuously. Owners report that veterinarians often don’t use the passport to record care history and many opt for the old way of doing things and issue vaccination cards instead. Many competing grounds are also happy to just see the vaccination card and don’t check passports.

Problems aside, the supposed benefit of the Passport system is it provides traceability of the horse, ensuring that meat from horses that have received hazardous drugs doesn’t enter the food chain. There is no such system in the United States. At one time, the USDA considered implementing a system of traceability known as the National Animal ID System, or NAIS. However, because of pushback from farmers and livestock associations, the USDA dropped its plans. Instead, the USDA adopted a relatively weak rule that animals transported across border will have to be accompanied by formal identification, including a veterinarian certificate or owner statement. No passport, no electronic tracking, just paperwork.

The new rule’s purpose is to track the course of a diseased horse across state borders. However, tracking a diseased horse is only one component of ensuring the safety of the meat. It’s also important to know what drugs a horse has been given. As the USDA notes in its inspection procedure, horses are companion animals and are usually given medications forbidden a food animal like a cow. In particular, one drug, phenylbutazone or “bute” as it’s commonly called, is frequently used with companion horses. But bute can also cause a fatal disease in humans called aplastic anaemia. The drug is so dangerous that any use in the horse makes that horse ineligible for processing as meat.

To check for drugs, the USDA implemented an inspection routine that randomly samples horses, based on the number of horses within a “lot”. If the lot consists of 10 horses, the USDA inspectors will test 1 horse; between 11 and 50, 2 horses; between 51 and 100 horses, 3 horses are tested; and if the lot consists of 100 or more horses, a maximum of 4 horses are tested.

Is this random sampled testing sufficient to ensure that the horse meat is free from drug or other residue that can cause harm? Well, to answer that, we have to visit our neighbors to the north.

The Toronto Star has written a series of investigative stories about the processing of horse meat in Canadian factories. It followed a race horse named Backstreet Bully, as it left a race course only to be shot dead in a knacker’s yard. The story detailed how, through a series of deceptions widely practiced in the kill horse auction community, a horse who had been administered drugs typically given to companion horses, ends up at a horse meat slaughter auction house. The story effectively demonstrates how ineffectual Canada’s own “passport”, the Equine Information Document, is when it comes to preventing drug tainted meat from entering the human food chain.

The federal government relies heavily on the accuracy of the passports, which have been in existence since 2010 and are the first line of defence in keeping tainted horse meat from the human food chain. The government does not require owners selling a horse for meat to provide additional medical history such as veterinary records.

Dr. Martin Appelt, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s national veterinary program manager, acknowledged the government relies on an honour system and hopes that the documents are “a reflection of the truth.”

But it’s far from a foolproof system: last year, tainted horse meat from Canada, bound for Belgium, was found to contain traces of two controversial drugs, bute and clenbuterol, the latter on the list of drugs in Canada that are never to be given to animals sold for human food.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency began testing horse meat for bute in 2002. In detecting prohibited veterinary drug residues in meat, there is an overall compliance rate of 96 to 98 per cent, according to an agency spokesperson. Testing is random though a horse or its carcass will be tested if there are red flags or concerns.

Though Canada has implemented it’s own passport system, it also relies on random testing, just like the USDA. Yet horse meat tainted with dangerous drugs has still managed to slip through to the European market. We, in the US, rely only on random testing—how safe do you think the meat will be?

Of course, one can always choose not to eat horse meat. We’re not going to be exposed to bute-tainted meat if we don’t eat horse meat. The problem with this approach, though, is that sometimes people are eating horse meat and aren’t even aware they’re doing so.

This year, the EU and the UK were shaken when horse DNA was found in meat labeled as 100% beef. Food Safety News put together an infographic charting the early days of the scandal, but the problem is ongoing. Just last week, authorities noted that two people involved in the horse meat contamination were arrested in Britain.

The Horse DNA tainted beef has shown up all throughout Europe and the UK: in foods ranging from fast food burgers to the famous IKEA meat balls. Recent testing has shown that over 5% of meat labeled “beef” in Europe is contaminated with horse meat DNA. This isn’t a small percentage, and demonstrates that the horse meat contamination is endemic—especially when we consider the DNA testing is more thorough in some countries, than others.

What’s more critical is that testing also discovered that one half of one percent of the horse meat tested positive for bute—a far more alarming discovery. Authorities downplayed the findings, saying the percentage is trivial, but the assertion of “no worries” doesn’t jibe with the laws restricting any presence of bute in the human food chain.

The EU may state that the issue is a matter of food fraud and not of food safety, but in the end, it’s all about food safety. Food safety is about preventing harm to people, regardless of the impetus behind the harm: human greed or human carelessness. And, as noted in the NY Times article just linked, Europeans have only been testing for bute…there are other drugs used with horses that can also potentially cause harm if consumed by humans or other animals.

If you live in the United States, you may think this isn’t a problem for any of us. After all, we don’t typically eat horse meat in this country. None of the horse meat processed in the country is targeted for human consumption within the country. The meat is intended for human consumption in other countries, or supposedly for animals in zoos. Why should we worry, then?

Leaving aside the fact that we should question our indifference about inflicting potentially dangerous meat on the rest of the world, not to mention tigers, lions, and bears in zoos, we are at risk for our own version of the European horse meat scandal by starting up horse meat processing in this country.

Horse meat is generally less expensive than beef, especially horse meat from older horses or scrawny wild mustangs. It’s going to be tempting to shove a little horse meat into the beefwhen creating cheap frozen foods, or foods served at inexpensive restaurants. In addition, horse meat is leaner than beef, which has an appeal for a different reason. Because of our insistence of shoving corn down cows’ throats, we have almighty fatty beef in the US. Yet weight conscious people want low fat meats. Access to lean meat to mix with our fatter beef in order to control fat content is an attractive proposition. Right now, we’re actually importing lean beef trim from countries like New Zealand, just to get that “98% lean” label in the supermarket. Why not toss in a little leaner horse meat rather than import lean meat scraps?

We wouldn’t need to be concerned about our own version of “food fraud” if we did DNA testing on our meat in order to ensure that “beef” is “beef”. Canada did this recently, to assure its citizens that Canadian beef is real beef (they hope, because just like testing for drugs in horse meat, the horse DNA testing samples were limited). The problem is, the US doesn’t do any DNA testing of our locally derived meat. Some folks did for our seafood, and found a whole lot of “mislabeling”. We do species testing for imported meat, but we don’t do any DNA testing of our locally derived meat.

Well, isn’t that just peachy?

Let’s be blunt, we’re right there with the folks in Canada and the EU: food safety is based on the honor system more often than not. Most of the time, it works. Sometimes, though, the honor system doesn’t work as well as we’d like. Once we start processing horse meat in the US, the only way we can guarantee we don’t get any horse meat in our hamburgers is not to eat hamburgers.

Or chicken.

I’d stay away from goat, too.

That’s just not right

Earlier, I found a PR release from the AVMA (American Veterinarian Medical Association) undermining Missouri’s Proposition B in favor of its “model bill”. In an associated video, the AVMA’s CEO, Dr. DeHaven, states that Proposition B only sets limits on the number of dogs that can be kept, when in actuality, Proposition B does more (DeHaven’s video)—much more than the AVMA model bill, which relies almost completely on a commercial dog breeder honor system (and large scale commercial dog breeders are not necessarily known for their honor).

Afterward, I received an email related to a bug I’m following in the HTML5 working group. In response to detailed, thoughtful request for a way to provide alternative text for a video poster, the HTML5 editor, Ian Hickson, declined, writing as rationale:

The request here is just cargo-cult accessibility and would not
actually improve the life of any users, while costing authors in wasted time
and effort.

I reacted the same to both: that’s just not right.

You would think that humane treatment of dogs and ensuring accessibility for folks would be no-brainers, equivalent to being “agin sin”. You would think so…and you would be wrong.

Whatever sense of empathy and compassion we had, once upon a time, seems to have been left in a long ago forgotten consciousness. Today, what rules is the bottom line, and if that bottom line must run over the bodies of puppies and disabled, equally, run it must because there’s a new sense of pragmatic necessity that rules in the land.

Those who cannot see do not really need to know what the poster to a video is all about, because authors can’t really be bothered to provide the information. It’s not pragmatic to even consider the option. As Hickson stated earlier in the discussion of the bug:

I’m confused. Why would you (a blind user) want to know what the poster frame
is? How does it affect you?

How does it affect you‽

The welfare of dogs is important, yes, but not at the cost of the rights of the breeder. Weighing the needs of the dogs over the wants of the breeder is not pragmatic. The AVMA invited Wes Jamison, a communications professor from Florida, to speak about the role of veterinarians in today’s society. What he said explains much about the AVMA position:

Dr. Jamison … indicated that the veterinary profession, by emphasizing the importance of the human-animal bond, enables consumer hypocrisy, which is exploited by animal protection organizations. He argued that the AVMA should abandon advocating for the human-animal bond in favor of fighting for the right of animal owners to use animals as they choose, whether that entails companionship, food, or labor.

The human-animal bond is hypocrisy‽

Pragmatic hell, that’s just not right.

Flitter

I visited the Butterfly House at Faust Park yesterday for the first time. I wasn’t expecting much when I arrived; I’ve been to other butterfly houses, and the number of visitors seemed to be disproportionately larger than the number of butterflies. However, when I entered the Butterfly House’s glass dome, within a few seconds a Dead Leaf butterfly landed on the shoulder of the man in front of me—a occurrence that would happen frequently to most visitors as you wonder the paths amid the seemingly thousands of delicate, flying creatures.

(I would have taken a photo but the hot and humid room had fogged all my lenses. It would take close to half an hour for the lenses to come unfogged; just about the time when I was getting red faced and drenched in sweat, having foolishly dressed for winter. )

butterfly25

Even with the sunlight the conservatory was too dark to really get photos of the butterflies so I had to use my flash. This flattened many of the photos, washing out some of the color and detail. Still, the butterflies seemed to like the flash, and each time it went off, a few would fly toward me, and dance about my camera–too fast to photograph, barely slow enough for my limited senses.

I started wondering aimlessly around, being careful where to walk because the butterflies were on the ground as well as the camera bag, the trees, the flowers, the feeding dishes, the sides of the conservatory, and other people. It wasn’t crowded, which made photography easier. Two women had brought their two young children, and had some difficulty keeping them under control. The kids weren’t being destructive–just young and absolutely fascinated by the butterflies. The mothers apologized to me for the noise, and I said I didn’t mind at all. How can one get upset at the sound of such joy?

butterfly19

Still, when they left, and everyone else had left, I had the place to myself except for one of the workers pruning some of the bushes. I went through the place once more, and this time, perhaps because I was the only one there, I was surrounded by butterflies every where I went. Not just butterflies: exquisite moths, too. I had to use flash, and harshly, to be able to get photos of the Cobra Moths, but I didn’t care–I had to show you these creatures. The moths are larger than my hand, and beautifully colored, as well as camouflaged with the cobra ‘heads’ at each wing tip.

butterfly26

butterfly11

I forget at times that butterfly wing colors and patterns are a defense mechanism; orange and reds are the bright colors of poison; dots and swirls resemble owl eyes, or snakes; speckled greens and yellows allow the insects to blend into jungle greens, and meadow yellows.

butterfly21

One of my favorite of the butterflies was the Owl Butterfly. I discovered its name from another photographer I chatted with earlier, when I had first arrived. He was a younger man, big, with blond hair, face pink from the heat. He had been there since early morning (wisely, I noticed, dressed in a light t-shirt). He was kind enough to give me some lens tissue to clean my lenses and then spent about an hour showing me butterflies, which he photographed with a film camera using a macro lens and natural light. He mentioned that the Butterfly House is a second home to him–that and the Botanical Gardens.

butterfly4

At first I took him to be a simple person; then I realized that he was, instead, a man of simple pleasures–not unlike the Butterfly Man in Sebald’s book, The Emigrants. I don’t have this book in my limited library, but a search returned the following:

The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know. He comes round here quite often.

butterfly17

Further reading suggested that Sebald’s Butterfly Man is an allegorical reference to one of his favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, author of the acclaimed, albeit infamous, Lolita. Like Sebald, Nabokov was a man passionately in love with words. In a review of Lolita at Amazon, Simon Leake wrote:

Playfully perverse in form as well as content, riddled with puns and literary allusions, Nabokov’s 1955 novel is a hymn to the Russian-born author’s delight in his adopted language. Indeed, readers who want to probe all of its allusive nooks and crannies will need to consult the annotated edition. Lolita is undoubtedly, brazenly erotic, but the eroticism springs less from the “frail honey-hued shoulders … the silky supple bare back” of little Lo than it does from the wantonly gorgeous prose that Humbert uses to recount his forbidden passion.

butterfly14

Nabokov once said, My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting. It is this man, and this passion, which is threaded throughout Sebald’s Emigrants, as a review from a reader at Amazon describes:

Sebald is never without his playful, even absurd, side, and it is present in this book as well. Running through his narratives, and culminating in the memoir of Max Ferber’s mother, Luisa, are allusions to “the butterfly man.” In Ferber’s section, “the butterfly man” is a boy of about 10 who chases butterflies in the German resort town of Bad Kissingen. This man is clearly Vladimir Nabokov, for the scene described is exactly the same as one described in Nabokov’s own memoir, “Speak, Memory.” Whether muse or mentor, “the butterfly man” holds great significance for each of Sebald’s characters. And, who but Sebald would have had the imagination and creativity to braid, like a silken thread, the spirit of the most celebrated of all literary emigrees throughout this book?

As in all of Sebald’s books, photographs are an integral part of the work and, once again, rather than adding clarity, they seem to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction instead. What is real? What is not? With Sebald, we never really know.

butterfly9

Just before the exit at the Butterfly House is the Miracle of Metamorphosis display. Here, chrysalids from throughout the world are carefully hung and nurtured. No matter what time of day, there is always at least one butterfly being born in this display. When I was there, several owl butterflies were getting ready to take wing. One could see the entire life of a butterfly, from larva to chrysalis to butterfly if one wanted to visit over a week at the Butterfly House. But not the death, though. I imagine that workers scour the plants nightly for butterflies that have died, removing them for mounting, study, or disposal. It wouldn’t do, you see, to have the walks littered with the fragile wings of dessicated butterflies; or corpses of moths hanging from the trees.

Before I left, a Blue Morpho butterfly I had been trying to photograph with its wings open, trailed by three Paper Kites and several Red Lacewings suddenly flew around me in a spiral that started at my knees, circling round and round until above my head–vanishing joyfully into the dark depths of the bushes above and around me. I didn’t get a photo of their flight. I didn’t even try.

butterfly28

The Yellow and Black Skunk

When I was a young’un, I lived on a farm several miles outside of Kettle Falls, in Washington state. Below the farm was an undeveloped field with a dirt road running through it that connected several homes. And below the road and the field was Lake Roosevelt. Surrounding all of this was bits and pieces of the Colville National Forest.

Back in those more innocent days, my mother let me go down to the field by myself as long as I didn’t go down to the water.

I loved this field of tall golden weeds. Since I was only about five at the time, the weeds would come up to my chest and I could look out on a sea of waving fronds and imagine I was on a ship in the ocean.

I loved the dust of the dirt road and would walk it slowly, sucking on the end of a grass blade pulled from the side of the road, occasionally chasing after a grasshopper or butterfly. Every once in a while I would see another critter such as a deer or a skunk, always trying to entice the former towards me, always giving considerable room to the latter.

Imagine a soft, warm summer afternoon, blue sky, glimmer of light reflection off of the water in the distance, the sound of insects and birds the only noise. And absolutely nothing to do but walk along the road and think thoughts of faraway places and strange new doings, such as my cousin coming for a visit and my Uncle giving my brother a rifle and not me because I was a girl. I got a stupid china tea set. You know the kind of thoughts — a child’s thoughts.

One day, there was a movement in the field towards my left. I stopped and looked, hand over eyes to shade the sun, squinting my eyes al-most tight (sign of glasses to come the following year), trying to see what was causing the motion.

Up a head pops and then down it goes.

What?

Up a head pops and then down it goes again.

What is that?

Again, the head appears and I have a better view. It’s golden and kind of flat and has black markings.

That’s not a deer. Too small for a deer.

Up the head pops and then down it goes again.

That’s not a bunny. It’s too big.

Up and down.

That’s not a skunk though it does have markings like a skunk.

I watched this strange creature for some time. I wasn’t frightened. If anything I thought this new experience was a huge treat considering the usual activity associated with a warm sunny afternoon, such as standing in the middle of a road of dust, listening to the insects rub wings and legs.

Up the head would pop, down it would go, each jump moving it farther away until with a last rustle, it disappeared into the woods.

I ran home and opened the door and there was my mother, washing something in the sink, the smell of good things to eat hanging in the late afternoon air. I remembered running up to her, excited, telling her in the jumbled child manner about this creature in the field that had these black markings and it jumped up and down and up and down and up…

“That’s a skunk, honey, You just saw a skunk is all.”

A yellow and black skunk? Well, okay. If you say so, Mama.

So I went for the just the longest, longest time, with this memory in my head of my warm, sunny afternoon and the field of gold and the dusty road, and my yellow and black skunk.

Until the day when I was looking at a new picture book and realized that my skunk was a bobcat.